There’s a wonderful watch exhibit going on in Singapore right now, the Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition. I’ve written about the display and the timepieces in a separate blog post, but here I want to talk about what might be the most impressive part of the exhibit: the opportunity to learn all about the many facets of watchmaking. They have artisans and specialists on site, all flown in from Switzerland, to show you how it’s done. As you go through the exhibit hall, you first learn about the more artistic side — etching, enameling, and marquetry. In this section, you can see how beautiful enamel watches like these …
… and clocks like these …
… actually come into being. The process of painting on enamel was perfected in the seventeenth century, and it’s an extraordinarily time-consuming process. The work of enameling a piece like the Vivaldi “Four Seasons” clock above can take one person a full three months! To start with, the artist will grind a base material to a powder, then mix it with oil or water to make it liquid, and then paint with it.
After the painting is complete, the piece is put it in a very hot oven, and the base material fuses into glass. But this doesn’t mean the artist is finished — depending on the piece, they may have to do it all over again, ten or even twenty times, working in layers. This alone makes the process incredibly daunting. But if you’re painting something tiny, like a watch dial or pocket watch cover, it’s even more complicated, because the paintbrush can be minuscule:
When you watch someone doing this, it’s like watching them paint with a needle. The enamel artist here was using a microscope to paint as he worked from a reference drawing — I have no idea how they managed painting like this three hundred years ago.
The brushwork is incredibly fine:
They also had a marquetry artist on site, who was working hard carving tiny little pieces out of a stacked pile of wood on what appeared to be some kind of a jigsaw (it’s actually called a marqueteur).
Marquetry involves cutting out itty-bitty, very thin pieces out of tens of different kinds of wood, then assembling these in a collage and coating them with veneer. So you end up with pieces that look like this …
… or this:
Also hard at work was a gentleman demonstrating how to use an antique metal engraving machine …
… which creates watch parts like this one:
As for how a watch actually works on the inside, that’s where things get complicated. There are snails and levers, cocks and wheels, stems and bridges:
Watches have so many tiny parts, and at this exhibit you can see them displayed both in glass cases …
… and in beautifully-rendered drawings, showing multi-level complications:
There’s a whole section where you look underneath the hood of different models of Patek Philippe watches. Here, for example, is not-so-enticingly named “Caliber R CH 27 PS QI,” which is “the first minute repeater to possess both a self-winding chronograph movement and a patented instantaneous perpetual calendar”:
If you’re not really sure what all of that involves — as I wasn’t — they have helpful people on hand to teach you how all of this works! And they simplify it wonderfully. I spent a while trying to get the hang of the basics (and the terminology) at this device:
Though this contraption looks like something I might have tried to create in elementary school, it actually includes some pretty tricky stuff (including a complication that accounts for leap years), so I was glad that it was staffed by a patient and cheerful watch expert. And there were more people available to answer all of the questions I had about each and every one of the itty bitty pieces that go into making a watch run (if you squint, you might be able to see the dozens of unimaginably small screws at the bottom):
All of this, from the handcrafted artistry to the tiny parts, gave me a newfound respect for the watchmaking industry. Patek Philippe’s Caliber 300 watch has 1,366 parts set on top of each other in six different layers!
And each layer is an engineering marvel in and of itself — I loved studying them:
As a side note, if you’re wondering why there are so many small rubies in these watches, they exist as bearings to reduce friction. There’s so much to learn about how watches are made — it’s a fascinating education!